Cocoa is the dried and partially fermented fatty seed of the cacao tree from which chocolate is made. "Cocoa" can often also refer to cocoa powder, the dry powder made by grinding cocoa seeds and removing the cocoa butter from the dark, bitter cocoa solids; or it may refer to the combination of both cocoa powder and cocoa butter together .
A cocoa pod has a rough leathery rind about 3 cm thick (this varies with the origin and variety of pod). It is filled with sweet, mucilaginous pulp called 'baba de cacao' in South America, enclosing 30 to 50 large almond-like seeds (beans) that are fairly soft and pinkish or purplish in color.
The cacao tree may have originated in the foothills of the Andes in the Amazon and Orinoco basins of South America where today, examples of wild cacao still can be found. However, it may have had a larger range in the past, evidence for which may be obscured because of its cultivation in these areas long before, as well as after, the Spanish arrived. It may have been introduced into Central America by the ancientMayas, and cultivated in Mexico by the Toltecs and later by the Aztecs. It was a common currency throughout MesoAmerica and the Caribbean before the Spanish conquests.
Cacao trees will grow in a limited geographical zone, of approximately 20 degrees to the north and south of the Equator. Nearly 70% of the world crop is grown in West Africa.
Cocoa was an important commodity in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Spanish chroniclers of the conquest of Mexico by Hernán Cortés relate that when Montezuma II, emperor of the Aztecs, dined he took no other beverage than chocolate, served in a golden goblet and eaten with a golden spoon. Flavored with vanilla and spices, his chocolate was whipped into a froth that dissolved in the mouth. No fewer than 50 pitchers of it were prepared for the emperor each day, and 2000 more for nobles of his court.
The cacao plant was first given its botanical name by Swedish natural scientist Carolus Linnaeus in his original classification of the plant kingdom, who called it "Theobroma ("food of the gods") cacao".
About 3,000,000 tonnes of cocoa is grown each year. The global production was
- 1,556,484 t in 1974,
- 1,810,611 t in 1984,
- 2,672,173 t in 1994,
- 3,607,052 t in 2004 (record).
This is an increase of 131.7% in 30 years.
There are three main varieties of the Theobroma cacao: Forastero, Criollo, and Trinitario. The first comprises 95% of the world production of cacao, and is the most widely used. Overall, the highest quality of cacao comes from the Criollo variety and is considered a delicacy; however, Criollo is harder to produce, hence very few countries produce it, with the majority of production coming from Venezuela (Chuao and Porcelana). The Trinitario is a mix between Criollo and Forastero.
When the pods ripen, they are harvested from the trunks and branches of the Cocoa tree with a curved knife on a long pole. The pod itself is green when ready to harvest, rather than red or orange. Normally, red or orange pods are considered of a lesser quality because their flavors and aromas are poorer; these are used for industrial chocolate. The pods are either opened on the field and the seeds extracted and carried to the fermentation area on the plantation, or the whole pods are taken to the fermentation area.
The harvested pods are opened with a machete, the pulp and cocoa seeds are removed and the rind is discarded. The pulp and seeds are then piled in heaps, placed in bins, or laid out on grates for several days. During this time, the seeds and pulp undergo "sweating", where the thick pulp liquifies as it ferments. The fermented pulp trickles away, leaving cocoa seeds behind to be collected. Sweating is important for the quality of the beans, which originally have a strong bitter taste. If sweating is interrupted, the resulting cocoa may be ruined; if underdone the cocoa seed maintains a flavor similar to raw potatoes and becomes susceptible to mildew.
The liquified pulp is used by some cocoa producing countries to distill alcoholic spirits.
Boy collecting cacao
Cacao drying under the sun
Cacao drying square in front of church, Chuao, Venezuela.
Woman drying cacao
The fermented beans are dried by spreading them out over a large surface and constantly raking them. In large plantations, this is done on huge trays under the sun or by using artificial heat. Small plantations may dry their harvest on little trays or on cowhides. Finally, the beans are trodden and shuffled about (often using bare human feet) and sometimes, during this process, red clay mixed with water is sprinkled over the beans to obtain a finer color, polish, and protection against molds during shipment to factories in the United States, the Netherlands, United Kingdom, and other countries. Drying in the sun is preferable to drying by artificial means, as no extraneous flavors such as smoke or oil are introduced which might otherwise taint the flavor.
To make 1 kg (2.2 pounds) of chocolate, about 300 to 600 beans are processed, depending on the desired cocoa content. In a factory, the beans are washed and roasted. Next they are de-hulled by a "nibber" machine that also removes the germ. The nibs are what is left of the bean after this process, and are ground between three sets of stones into a thick creamy paste, known as chocolate liquor. This "liquor" is separated into cocoa powder and cocoa fat (cocoa butter) using a hydraulic press or the Broma process. This process produces around 50% cocoa butter and 50% cocoa powder. Standard cocoa powder has a fat content of approximately 10-12 percent. Cocoa butter is used in chocolate bar manufacture, other confectionery, soaps, and cosmetics.
Adding an alkali produces Dutch process cocoa powder, which is less acidic, darker and more mellow in flavor than what is generally available in most of the world. Regular (nonalkalized) cocoa is acidic, so when added to an alkaline ingredient like baking soda, the two react and leave a byproduct.
Problems in the use of cocoa as a commodity
- Cocoa farmers in many countries lack information on production and marketing practices to help them improve their livelihoods. Charities such as the World Cocoa Foundation helps to support sustainable cocoa efforts through public-private partnerships in cocoa growing regions.
- Child slavery has commonly been used in its production to cover the lower profit margin. According to the U.S. Department of State, more than 109,000 children were working on cocoa farms in Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) in 'the worst forms of child labor' in 2002. See Cocoa Protocol for an effort to end this practice. The Cocoa Protocol has been critiqued by a number of groups including the International Labor Rights Fund since it is an industry initiative which has failed to meet its goals of phasing out child labor in the industry.
- Natural pollination is exclusively by midges, which may be affected by pesticides. Pollination is also carried out manually.
- Many cocoa farmers receive a low price for their production. This has led to cocoa and chocolate being available as fairtrade items in some countries. However, this fair trade remains as a tiny percentage of the total trade.
Cocoa beans, Cocoa butter and cocoa powder are traded on two world exchanges: London and New York. The London market is based on West African cocoa and New York on cocoa predominantly from South East Asia. Cocoa is the world's smallest soft commodity market. The futures price of cocoa butter and cocoa powder is determined by multiplying the bean price by a ratio. The combined butter and powder ratio has tended to be around 3.5. If the combined ratio falls below around 3.2, production ceases to be economically viable and some factories cease extraction of butter and powder and trade exclusively in cocoa liquor. File:WikCOCOA.jpg
Health benefits of cocoa consumption
Chocolate and cocoa contain a high level of flavonoids, specifically epicatechin, which may have beneficial cardiovascular effects on health. The ingestion of flavonol-rich cocoa is associated with acute elevation of circulating Nitrous oxide, enhanced flow-mediated vasodilation, and augmented microcirculation.
Prolonged intake of flavonol-rich cocoa has been linked to cardiovascular health benefits, though it should be noted that this refers to plain cocoa. Milk chocolate's addition of whole milk reduces the overall cocoa content per ounce while increasing saturated fat levels, possibly negating some of cocoa's heart-healthy potential benefits. Nevertheless, studies have still found short term benefits in LDL cholesterol levels from dark chocolate consumption. 
Hollenberg and colleagues of Harvard Medical School studied the effects of cocoa and flavanols on Panama's Kuna Indian population, who are heavy consumers of cocoa. The researchers found that the Kuna Indians living on the islands had significantly lower rates of heart disease and cancer compared to those on the mainland who do not drink cocoa as on the islands. It is believed that the improved blood flow after consumption of flavanol-rich cocoa may help to achieve health benefits in hearts and other organs. In particular, the benefits may extend to the brain and have important implications for learning and memory.
Foods rich in cocoa appear to reduce blood pressure but drinking green and black tea may not, according to an analysis of previously published research in the April 9, 2007 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.
Non-human animal consumption
Chocolate is a food product with appeal not only to the human population, but to many different animals as well. However, chocolate and cocoa contain a high level of xanthines, specifically theobromine and to a much lesser extent caffeine, that are detrimental to the health of many animals, including dogs and cats. While these compounds have desirable effects in humans, they cannot be efficiently metabolized in many animals and can lead to cardiac and nervous system problems, and if consumed in high quantities, even lead to death. However, since the mid-2000s, some cocoa derivatives with a low concentration of xanthines, have been designed by specialized industry to be suitable for pet consumption, enabling the pet food industry to offer animal safe chocolate and cocoa flavored products. It results in products with a high concentration of fiber and proteins, while maintaining low concentrations of sugar and other carbohydrates; thus enabling it to be used to create healthy functional cocoa pet products.
- Theobromine, an alkaloid present in cocoa
- Epicatechin, a flavonoid present in cocoa
- Labor exploitation in the chocolate industry
- International Labor Rights Fund - child labor in the cocoa industry
- Cocoa Beans Per Capita Consumption, www.fas.usda.gov, 1997
- U.S. Department of State Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, 2005 Human Rights Report on Côte d'Ivoire
- International Labor Rights Fund cocoa page
- World Cocoa Foundation - supporting sustainable cocoa farming
- International Cocoa Organization
- Theobroma Cacao -- The Tree of Life - Article on the history and propagation of cocoa trees.
- The Food of the Gods - the nature, growth, cultivation, manufacture and history of Cocoa, by Brandon Head, from Project Gutenberg
- Cocoa news page - Alcohol and Drugs History Society
- Harvard Study on Medical Aspects of Cocoa
- History of Cocoa Bean